“No man,” said Dr. Johnson, “is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” Now, people can be hypocrites about their pleasures, like the fashionable people over the generations who have gone to the opera not for the pleasure of the music but for the pleasure of dressing up and being seen. And many people have guilty pleasures—low tastes that they conceal.
My own most enduring and lifelong pleasure has been reading, and while I do read history and biography for amusement, my low pleasure is reading murder mysteries.
I could, if I liked, try to dress that up. I could say that murder mysteries follow the archetypal pattern that we see in comedy: Into an apparently orderly world, disorder is introduced, and through a realignment of relationships, a new order is created. This is more or less the pattern that W.H. Auden describes in his classic essay on the detective story, “The Guilty Vicarage.” Further, the genre allows the reader to participate vicariously in dangerous and violent actions and impulses at no personal cost, for a psychological discharge of those impulses. (As I have said before, after a long day at work with professional journalists, nothing gives more comfort that a comfortable chair, a strong drink, and an account of disagreeable people meeting violent death.)
But I know in my heart that most of what I read in this vein is of marginal literary achievement.* In “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Edmund Wilson returned to the detective novel after having disparaged Rex Stout (whose complete Nero Wolfe oeuvre I own and re-read periodically) and gave a it second chance after champions of the genre had written to him. On their recommendation, he picked up Dorothy Sayers. Listen to his voice rise: “Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this. ... There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey. ...”
Pace, admirers of Dorothy Sayers. Elsewhere, in the essay “Reading,” collected in The Dyer’s Hand, Auden says, “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” If it gives you joy, it has some value.
The guilty pleasures give pleasure, and for reasons. And now, despite my repeated insistence on the importance of getting to the point immediately in writing, I tell you that the previous five paragraphs are merely a prologue to the point of today’s post: I invite you to share your own guilty pleasures, and explain how they satisfy you.
For the sake of seemliness, let’s restrict the comments to books. If your favorite tipple is two parts single malt to one part Gatorade, that is something we would prefer not to know. If you please, the books you genuinely enjoy, regardless of their prestige, and the pleasure they give you:
*I did manage to get through Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by reading very fast for plot and paying no attention to the prose. But when I picked up Angels and Demons, I started hearing what it sounded like and ground to a halt within a couple of chapters, never to return.